WASHINGTON - A tiny week-long encampment of net neutrality demonstrators outside the Federal Communications Commission in Washington has drawn the attention of some of the body's highest seats. And, according to the protesters, some employees of the agency have even given them high fives in support.
"Employees come down during rush hour at 9 a.m. giving us high fives, 'Keep up the good work,'" protest organizer Kevin Huang told ABC News. "Sometimes they give us discreet thumbs up. They'll say, 'Hey, I really hope you win. We're with you on this.'"
ABC News witnessed one commissioner, Democrat Mignon Clyburn, meet with some of the protesters outside the FCC doors today, the latest of a string of board members to come and meet with the group calling itself "Occupy the FCC." Clyburn would not talk specifics about Thursday's pending vote in the commission or her stance, but nonetheless expressed support for the picketers.
"I want you to know I share your passion," she told the fewer than a dozen present. "We have a process, as you know, that hopefully will allow for you and everyone interested and everyone else interested for open engagement. That begins tomorrow."
The FCC is considering whether to allow Internet service providers to levy extra charges against big content companies like Netflix or YouTube to ensure fast or stable service to their customers, a move vehemently opposed by both these large Internet corporations and net neutrality advocates like Occupy the FCC. Thursday's vote by the FCC's five commissioners will decide whether to move that proposal, supported by FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler, into a lengthy public comment period.
Despite the opposition, Wheeler is also among the three members with whom demonstrators say they have met. "There's robust, ample opportunity for those interested in a free and open internet to weigh in," Clyburn later told ABC. "So I'm hopeful this will allow for robust participation and this is our pathway to allow that."
Clyburn said the FCC has already received an estimated 165,000 messages from the public on the matter. Members of Occupy the FCC plan on sitting in on Thursday's hearing, which is open to the public.
The protesters were polite and discussions cordial, but Occupy's position on the matter is clear: They would see Internet service providers be classified as utility companies, like telephone, water, or gas, which would allow the government to ban restrictions or throttling of service.
"It's become just like a public utility in our lives. People depend on it," demonstrator Margaret Flowers of Baltimore told ABC. "We use it for communicating. We use it for finding information. We use it for paying our bills and signing up for things. And what is on the table right now is a proposal that would allow large telecommunications companies to turn the internet into, like, cable TV, so that people will have to be signing up for different packages. And depending on what you can afford will determine what access you have."
Protest organizer Huang, of net neutrality advocacy group Fight for the Future, said the long-term implications went into deeper territory than consumer rights.
"Our goal is really to protect the Internet from being discriminated against, censored and blocked. And that's really at the core of being able to express ourselves and communicate on the Internet. …] Having this sort of proposal to censor and block and discriminate depending on what kind of content you're using really undermines the basis of our society in terms of free speech and human rights," he said.
Today's demonstrations come the same day Republican leadership in the House of Representatives wrote to the FCC urging it not to classify ISP's as utility companies, binding them to rules they say would "needlessly inhibit the creation of American private sector jobs," burdening providers like Verizon and Comcast, and "impose antiquated regulation on the internet."
"Efforts to regulate the internet as a utility [...] are threatening to set back this progress and impose on broadband rules designed for the old-fashioned, monopoly-era phone service," the letter reads.